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Leon Says Jets RBs 'Can Definitely Improve'


*This is the fourth in a series of stories reviewing the Jets' 2007 season and previewing 2008, position by position.


The old football philosophy on the running game has changed and the Jets are a perfect example of the modern trend. When future Hall of Famer Curtis Martin hung up the cleats, the Jets went to a committee approach in 2006, and they continued their rotational system last season with Thomas Jones and Leon Washington.

"It keeps the backs fresher throughout the season and throughout the game," Washington told * *during a morning phone conversation. "With me helping Thomas out and Thomas helping me out, we get to the fourth quarter and we're able to finish better because we're a lot fresher and haven't taken that much pounding.

"Secondly, it's tough to prepare for that. Teams have to go into practice the week prior to the game and have to worry about a guy like Maurice Jones-Drew, who can take it the distance from anywhere, but then you have to worry about a guy like Fred Taylor, who's physical."

Washington wasn't comparing the Jets' backfield to the Jags' backfield but you can see the parallels. Washington, a second-year RB who averaged 5.0 yards per rush and tallied a team-leading three rushing TDs in 2007, is always a threat to reach the end zone, and Jones, who amassed 1,119 yards in his first season with the Green & White, is a powerfully built man looking for contact.

"I think it worked really well," Washington said of the tandem. "When I got into the game, teams had to worry about me being that change-of-pace guy, a guy coming in who can break it from anywhere. Thomas can also break it from anywhere, but he's physical and he can pound you."

The Jets rushed for 106.3 yards per game last season, an average that ranked 19th in the NFL. In the yards-per-attempt category, they were just 23rd at 3.8.

"As a unit, as an offense, we didn't run the ball as effectively as we thought we would do. I would give it a C grade," Washington said. "We can definitely improve on last year."

Perhaps the most troubling part of the ground game was the Jets' ineffectiveness on short-yardage plays. On third-and-1's, they converted on just 16 of 28 attempts. On fourth-and-1's, the club was good on four of six.

"In my opinion, that comes down to attitude and guys have to develop that attitude starting in OTAs and in training camp. When it gets to third-and-1 and fourth-and-1, we are going to do whatever it takes — whether it's the running backs, the O-line, the wide receivers or the quarterback," Washington said. "Each guy has to bunker down on this one play and lay it on the line because this is the play that's going to give you the chance to win the game."

The Jets are known for their creativity on offense in regard to shifts, motions and formations. In Leon and TJ, they've got two guys who combined for 64 catches (36 for Washington, 28 for Jones) and Washington even lined up at quarterback last year a couple of times.

"Coach [Brian] Schottenheimer does a good job making teams prepare for us in different ways. The last game of the season, I finally got a chance to throw the ball against Kansas City and had like a 36-yard completion [to Wallace Wright]," he said. "That was pretty cool and at the same time it makes it difficult for teams to prepare for you."

On paper, the Jets have already improved their rush attack. Free agency brought New York's AFC representative Alan Faneca, a perennial Pro Bowler at LG, and Damien Woody, a versatile pro who's penciled in at RT.

"I'm thankful. The organization thought there were some areas where we needed to improve as a team and they went out and did the necessary things to help this team improve," Washington said.

During the final week of the regular season, Jones talked about the benefit of being more familiar with Schottenheimer's scheme.

"I got acclimated to this offense pretty early, but I continued to learn more about the offense as the year went along. Next year I will have a head start on what we are trying to do," he said. "With a year under my belt in this system, I think I will be a lot better off."

After averaging just 16.8 points per game, the Jets know they have to change their fortunes in the red zone. They scored just 18 touchdowns on 49 trips inside the 20 and their 39 scores translated into a 79.6 scoring percentage (only Tennessee was lower). Of the Jets' five TDs on the ground, two scores came from quarterbacks.

"Whether we're punching it in on the ground or not, we have to score in the red zone, period," Washington said. "If you look at the statistics from last year, we were down at the bottom of the league scoring touchdowns in the red zone. That is something we talked about all year last year."

The running backs, led by one of the game's most respected coaches in Jimmy Raye, added free agent Jesse Chatman last month. Chatman, coming off a career year in Miami, played for Schottenheimer in San Diego and is a willing special teams contributor.

And with just days remaining before the draft, many prognosticators believe the Jets might be willing to draft Arkansas RB Darren McFadden with the sixth overall selection.

"Whatever guy comes in who is a running back, I'm a veteran in this league," Jones said in December. "It will be my ninth year and I have a lot of knowledge that can help a young back become a better back."

"Whoever gets drafted, I will always welcome them to the New York Jets. I'm a team player and I love competition," echoed Washington today. "So regardless of who comes in — a wide receiver, a running back, a linebacker — I just want that guy to come in with the attitude knowing they are going to help this team get to the championship level that we need to get to."

Washington, a feared kick returner voted MVP by his teammates after a tremendous all-around campaign, and Jones, who has now rushed for 1,000 yards in three consecutive seasons, are as committed as they come and have already begun preparing for the campaign ahead.

"I enjoy being around the guys in the weightroom and I'm definitely preparing myself for a long season. You win championships right now," Washington said. "Your emphasis is on winning a championship during the season but you actually win championships before you get there. I realize how critical it is for you as a professional to go out there and take care of your body so you can have a successful season."

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